February 16, 2007 -- “The Good German” is one of the most artistically daring movies of 2006, made in the style of movies from 60 years ago, it is like no other major motion picture made in 2006. The style of acting, the aspect ratio of the film, the sound and picture are all right out of the 1940s. Even the camera lenses used to film it are vintage 1940s equipment. Like many films of that era, this is a film noir detective story about a murder and conspiracy, complete with governmental corruption at the highest levels of postwar Berlin. There is also some romantic intrigue as various men fight for the affections of the mysterious Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett of “Notes of a Scandal”). Film noir was briefly popular, but it captured the imagination of many directors and it continues to be emulated to this day. Classic film noir movies include “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “The Maltese Falcon,” and “Double Indemnity,” all filmed within a few years of the time “The Good German” is set (1945). Modern examples of film noir include “Chinatown,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Body Heat.”
The film's star is George Clooney (“Good Night and Good Luck”) a frequent collaborator with director Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean's 11” and “Ocean's 12”). Clooney plays U.S. Army Capt. Jacob 'Jake' Geismer, a war correspondent, assigned to cover the post-war Potsdam Conference. At this conference, held in late July and early August 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman, England's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, the victors in World War II, carved up Europe into pieces, laying the framework for the Cold War which would continue for more than 40 years. This all started with intense competition for the spoils of war. That competition is at the heart of this story.
Lena Brandt had been married to a former SS officer, Emil Brandt. Both the Americans and Russians are very interested in Emil Brandt, which is very strange, because he is supposed to be dead. Somehow, they hope to get to Brandt through his wife, Lena, who is now working as a prostitute in Berlin. Her boyfriend, a U.S. Army motor pool driver, Patrick Tully (played by Tobey Maguire of the “Spider-Man” movies), is a small time hustler. Lena hopes Tully can get her traveling documents so she can escape to America. Tully, who is also Geismer's driver, ends up murdered in Potsdam. Both the Americans and Soviets are trying to hush up the crime for some reason. Geismer wants to find out why. The other complication is that Geismer and Lena Brandt had been lovers during the war, and Geismer is still carrying a torch for her. These kinds of convoluted plots are typical in film noir.
The acting is excellent by the leads, Maguire, Blanchett and Clooney. They create complex, multi-faceted characters. The murder mystery part of the plot is engaging enough, but the characters are not easy to identify with. These are desperate, hard, bitter, disillusioned, cynical, unpleasant people who have lived through terrible times. Maguire, especially, is a tough customer in this film. This is a very atypical role for him, but he is convincing. These characters are haunted by what they have seen and done. Though the war is over, times are still hard in Berlin in 1945. Most of the city has been destroyed. The survivors are just hanging on. Although World War II was called “the good war” by some, it was anything but. It, like all wars, was hell, and what came immediately after it was not much better. This is a movie about people who are disposable pawns being manipulated in a huge power struggle.
The film is shot with color film, but the colors have been removed so the final print is in black and white. The film's aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is narrower than the current American theatrical standard. It is the same as the European standard, and that of super 16mm film. It is about halfway between the modern standard aspect ratio and the American standard format of the 1940s, 1.37:1. The old aspect ratio, called the cinema academy format, is used in the opening scenes of the film. Actual film shot in Berlin right after the war by famous Hollywood directors Billy Wilder and William Wyler is also spliced into the film, making it look more authentic. The camera lenses used are also true to the historical period, lacking modern anti-glare coatings. The resulting images are soft-focus with high contrasts and plenty of background glare. The sound recording techniques and theatrical acting styles also make the film look like it was made in the 1940s. The film's sexual references and language (the F word is used a few times) are modern, however. Also modern is the film's sophisticated, critical angle on postwar politics. The result is a film that is unique, combining as it does modern historical sensibilities and 1940s filmmaking techniques. It is worth a look for its style and some fine acting performances. This film rates a C+.
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